Fine for boffins, but not for us

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Survey reveals why so many pupils are giving science the thumbs-down. Sophie Kirkham reports

Pupils admire scientists and their work but believe they are boffins in white coats and glasses chained to their laboratory desks, a study has found.

Some 70 per cent of pupils agreed with the statement that scientists are "really brainy people", but almost the same number did not picture them as "normal and attractive young men and women", the survey said.

"They think that scientists are very brainy but they don't want to be them," said co-author of the study Roni Malek of the Science Learning Centre in London, who conducted the research to identify reasons for the drop in populartity of science in schools.

The subject has suffered from falling pupil and teacher numbers for more than a decade. A-level entries have risen overall since 1991 by 12.1 per cent, but in physics entries were down last year by 35.2 per cent, in maths by 21.5 per cent, and in chemistry by 12.6 per cent.

The Royal Society, a UK science charity, has warned that without swift action the future generation of engineers, scientists and technicians could be under threat.

In the survey, the 6,254 11 to 15-year-olds questioned were positive about the value of science in society, but their interest in the subject decreased with age. Boys were more interested than girls.

The pupils scored an average of 47.5 "interest rating" out of 100, the most enthusastic being 11-year-old boys, who scored 52.08. The least enamoured were 15-year-old girls with 42.7.

Asked to rate a series of topics from one to four, most said they found the way science relates to the human body the most interesting.

Among the subjects posed were: how cassette tapes, CDs and DVDs store and play sound and music; how the sunset colours the sky; how a nuclear power plant works; the possible effects of mobile phones and computers on the human body; the origin of stars, planets and the universe; and how it feels to be weightless in space.

The latter topic was a favourite for both sexes, after which girls chose how mobile phones affect the body and how the sunset colours the sky. Boys wanted to understand how CDs and DVDs work and the effects of lightning and electric shocks on the body.

Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, said he was encouraged by how positive the pupils were about science. But he added: "They think that it is done by people who are so clever that it is beyond their experience. It is not for them - it is for clever people with big glasses, apparently."

* newsdesk@tes.co.uk

PROS AND CONS OF LIFE IN THE LAB

WHY I WANT TO BE A SCIENTIST

* "Because I would get to see new and exciting things taking place."

* "Because I might be able to change and improve the world."

* "Because they get a lot of respect... and quite a lot of money."

WHY I DON'T WANT TO BE A SCIENTIST

* "I would never be a scientist because they all wear big glasses and white coats and I am female."

* "Because I want a life."

* "Because sometimes they don't eat, just work... it is kind of boring."

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